Goodbye, Phil, my dear Crow

The light that burns twice as bright burns for half as long – and you have burned so very, very brightly.

A few weeks ago we got a young crow who was no doubt a human imprint. He was found landing on people’s heads out in someone’s yard. They called us, and brought him to us. It was true. He was very, very tame. Often, people raise baby birds they find and then let them go free. The danger is they become ‘imprinted’ on people, and consequently don’t “know” that they are a bird, and instead identify with humans.

He was a 6 month old, fully grown Fish Crow. Smart as a whip, beautiful, with iridescent jet black feathers, inquisitive eyes, and the tiniest vestige of the ‘gape flange’ that identified him as a youngster.

We hoped he was merely a little tame, not a true ‘imprint’, and put him with another young crow. it didn’t work: he was too tame. So, we decided to enter him into our education animal program. We keep a few animals for education purposes. These are animals who cannot be released, but who have the temperament to deal well with life in captivity. ‘Phil’ this crow seemed to prefer the company of humans so we thought he’d do well. (The people who brought him named him Phil – we never got a chance to give him our own name). My boss assigned him to me and told me to get him ready for education outreach programs.

I had recently attended a few lectures on Operant Conditioning and read loads about it – particularly how using positive reinforcement is the best was to train an animal. In this way, the animal has the choice to participate in training, and if he does, he gets a coveted reward. There is no force. If the animal wants the reward, he does the behavior. So, I decided to teach this very smart crow with positive reinforcement.

In 2 weeks, he learned ‘step up’, ‘come here’ , ‘feet’ (meant, “give me your foot, and I’ll touch it, and later start to put your anklet on), and most importantly, “crate’. I had to teach him how to go into a crate without fear. To start, 2 weeks ago,  he wouldn’t go within 3 feet of it. In the last few days, I was able to put a treat in his crate, say, “Crate!” and he’d go in and get it. A total success.

I introduced him to all the volunteers, who loved him. The other night, when he was a bit tired, he allowed me to scratch and pet under his beak, where he had lots of new feathers growing in, for an hour. He was sleepy and accepted this affectionate touch.

This morning I started his normal training session. We did all the things he knew: step up, come here, crate. We had been working on putting his anklets on (so he wouldn’t dangerously fly away when he was out). I gave the command ‘feet!” and he’d let me put the anklet around, but not fasten it yet. I rewarded him with a piece of food, for small increments of success.Previously, I used an anklet that was just leather. The one I really wanted to use had metal grommets on it, so I introduced that one today. I said, “feet!” and put the anklet around his little leg. He snatched the anklet and flew away with it.

“Hey! You naughty crow!” I said, “Come here!” and he landed on my arm, anklet in beak, but he was positioning it in his mouth like he wanted to swallow it. “Don’t swallow that!!” I said, and tried to get it from him. He flew away. I said, “come here!” again, and he landed on my arm. Again I tried to grab it from him, and he flew away. Then I lunged for him. I chased him. I tried to grab him in the air. Finally, he landed on a high perch, and *triumphantly* swallowed the anklet. It was gone.

I called the vet. They said to bring him right over. I hoped it was still in his crop – that would be easy to get out. I got him there in 35 minutes. I had to break his trust and GRAB him and shove him in his crate, the very thing I had not wanted to do.

When we got there, the vet took x-rays and said the anklet had passed through his crop, through his proventriculus, into his ventriculus (the crop is the storage place under a bird’s chin, the proventriculus is the first stomach and the ventriculus is the second stomach.) The vet said the only option to get this thing out is surgery – major stomach surgery. There was no way to mechanically pull it out through the beak or vent. He gave it to me straight. It would be painful for the crow, risky, and with a long recovery period that may or may not work. The vet said we could do the surgery or euthanize him.

So, this crow would have gone through hell, and, he would probably suffer greatly, for weeks of recovery and pain,   and not trust humans again. Trusting humans was his only chance of a ‘happy’ life, as an education bird. After this, he’d be in limbo – not a normal crow, but not trusting humans, either, after the pain and confinement he’d have gone through.  so he’d not trust crows, and not trust humans. He’d be a lost little soul. Mainly, though, the major surgery of the stomach is risky and greatly painful for the bird. He’d have weeks of pain and suffering. ( I worked SO hard to get him to trust that I would not hurt him, no matter what, and if he complied with my wishes, he’d get treats.)

I believe it would have been selfish on my part to put him through that. I could have said, “No, I WANT you to be my friend, and I will make you go through that ordeal because if you are not here, I’ll  miss you.” But, I thought about it, and because I loved him so dearly, I chose not to put him through that suffering, and chose euthanasia.  I have been crying all day. I loved that bird so dearly. He was a bright little spark who gave me such a privilege for a few weeks, to glimpse into the world of crows. Every volunteer who met him loved him. I am so sorry little crow, if I failed you. I know humans failed you. it was humans who raised you to be a human imprint, and that’s why you didn’t know you were a crow, and were nonreleasable.  I won’t forget you, and I will dedicate my future work with birds to your memory.


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